In the first Iberian-American summit conference to be staged in Cuba, leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal have made one point abundantly clear: Their policy of engagement toward President Fidel Castro in the face of U.S. efforts to isolate him is not a one-way street.
Castro has touted the presence here of heads of state and other leaders from 21 countries as a diplomatic coup. But the coup has come with a price: At least eight visiting dignitaries have gone out of their way to hold unprecedented meetings about human rights with Cuban dissidents. Castro has suppressed dissent since coming to power four decades ago.
Although he told arriving leaders they could hold talks with whomever they pleased, Castro warned the anti-government activists of possible legal consequences for them. But in the end, analysts said, the aging president had little choice but to allow the discussions or risk straining relations with some of the countries that have become important economic partners for Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"If the summit had not been held in Cuba, the human rights issue would not have been forced. There has been a gain in that the dissidents have been recognized. They have gone from being kept in a back room to now being on the front porch," said Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana, Washington's diplomatic mission on the island.
But observers and anti-Castro activists were quick to caution that the last several days constitute a small step in what has been and promises to be a long struggle for improved human rights and other reforms in this Caribbean nation of 11.5 million people.
Hopes were high that Cuba would adopt a more tolerant position toward divergent views within the country following the historic visit by Pope John Paul II nearly two years ago. But that has not necessarily been the case.
While there is now greater religious freedom, Cuba earlier this year adopted stringent penalties for activities it considered supportive of U.S. efforts to isolate and undermine the Castro government through a 37-year-old trade embargo. And in the weeks leading up to today's conference, the government cracked down on a number of dissidents whom it accused of planning to sabotage the summit at Washington's behest.
Since the weekend, activists have held discussions with the prime minister of Spain, the presidents of Portugal and Uruguay and the foreign ministers of Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Dissidents also were scheduled to meet with Brazilian officials.
During these sessions, activists criticized both the Castro government and U.S. policy toward Cuba, which they contend has made their efforts to achieve reforms more difficult by giving the government a nationalistic justification for its repressive tactics.
"One way the Ibero-American leaders can help is to influence [Cuba's] political adversaries, particularly those in Washington, to let Cubans advance on the road to reform," Elizardo Sanchez, one of the leading dissidents, said in an interview.
At virtually every turn during the summit--which was boycotted by five Latin American presidents, three of them in protest over Cuba's repressive practices--the subjects of human rights and democracy have been emphasized.
In a speech marking the close of the summit, next year's host Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso lauded "the determined effort of our people to free themselves from the heavy chains of repressive regimes."
Without directly mentioning Cuba, Moscoso emphasized the value of a democracy that "allows the right to express our ideas, dissent from government, to elect and be elected according to a participatory electoral process."
Castro has appeared unruffled by the attention paid to Cuba's human rights situation, playing welcoming host and defending his revolution as one that has survived adversity and retained the fundamental tenets of socialism. He also has used the gathering to spotlight Cuba's successes. On Monday evening, with summit attendees looking on, Castro inaugurated the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, which will provide free training for thousands of medical students from around the region.
Furthermore, the 73-year-old president has pointed out that thanks to "engagement" on the part of Latin America and European nations, this country has emerged from a period of isolation, during which he was considered "an errant bird . . . an intruder . . . a black sheep," to a point where Cuba is hosting a major regional event.
Special correspondent Marc Frank contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Cuban President Fidel Castro affects Blues Brothers look at a meeting with reporters covering the Iberian-American summit conference in Havana.